Harper's 4th HR of postseason gets Phillies going
Slugger goes deep in third straight game, sets tone early in NLCS vs. Padres
SAN DIEGO -- The last time Bryce Harper had played a game at Petco Park, the two-time National League MVP thought his season was over. On June 25, he was hit by a 97.2 mph Blake Snell fastball, which fractured Harper's left thumb.
Though Harper missed two months, his season didn’t end that night. Instead, the moment rallied the Phillies’ clubhouse. They had lost their best player, but they wanted to stay within striking distance of a spot in the postseason, knowing Harper's eventual return to the lineup would help them be a threat in October.
That’s exactly how things have played out for Philadelphia, as Harper made a triumphant return to San Diego on Tuesday night and continued his torrid stretch at the plate with a solo homer in the fourth inning of the Phils' 2-0 win over the Padres in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series.
Harper has homered in three consecutive games, becoming the first member of the Phillies to accomplish that feat in the same postseason since Gary Matthews in Games 2-4 of the 1983 NLCS against the Dodgers.
“I think, with this atmosphere, every single moment is so important, and for a lot of players, all thought goes out the window and you just start competing,” Philadelphia outfielder Nick Castellanos said. “Usually for superstars like Bryce, that’s the trick, right? You just get out of your own way and allow your talent to take over. I think, in the postseason, that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
In Harper's first at-bat Tuesday, he hit a one-hopper to second baseman Jake Cronenworth, who made an outstanding defensive play in shallow right field to rob Harper of an RBI knock to end the first inning and prevent the Phillies from taking an early lead. Harper’s liner had an exit velocity of 106 mph and an .820 expected batting average, per Statcast.
When Harper came back up in the fourth, he made sure a defender wouldn’t again stop Philadelphia from taking the lead. He quieted the Petco Park crowd by sending a 93 mph Yu Darvish fastball over Jurickson Profar’s head and into the left-field seats.
The ball left the bat at a 42-degree launch angle, which resulted in a homer only 1 percent of the time during the regular season across MLB. It also had an expected batting average of .220 and would have been a homer in only 13 other parks across the Majors. In the end, it counted as Harper’s fourth homer of the postseason, the most by any player.
“I thought I barreled a couple tonight that had an opportunity,” Harper said. “But I think that one, it was just enough. It’s funny thinking about it, because [former Nationals manager] Matt Williams used to say, 'It’s not how far, it’s how many.' That was just enough.”
It took some time for Harper to find his groove at the plate and get to those type of pitches. After returning from the injured list on Aug. 26, Harper finished the regular season with only three homers and a .676 OPS over his final 35 games.
Harper was spending extra time in the batting cage, hoping to find something before the postseason. He was struggling to generate power, especially to the opposite field, like he did in Game 1.
But getting his hand stronger has been the biggest difference for Harper. He posted a 1.592 OPS over four games in the NL Division Series against the Braves, the highest mark in a postseason series in franchise history. On Tuesday, Harper followed that up by giving the Phillies an early lead and allowing Zack Wheeler to settle in and shut down the Padres' lineup over seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball.
“Any time you can get an early lead like that -- Harper giving us a lead, and then Zack going out having shutdown innings, having pretty fast innings,” Philadelphia catcher J.T. Realmuto said, "it’s nice to keep the crowd out of it.”
The formula to be successful in the postseason isn’t difficult to decipher. Teams need good starting pitching, a couple locked-in arms out of the bullpen and timely hitting. But perhaps the biggest key is having a superstar who is playing his best baseball of the season.
Through seven postseason games, Harper has fit that bill. And now, the Phillies are three wins away from their first NL pennant since 2008.
“Every day is a new day. Doesn’t matter if I’m 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, as long as we win the game,” Harper said. “Just try and make it as simple as possible and understand that the most important thing is winning.”